The Chitlin’ Circuit

[Walter Barnes and his Royal Creolians. Photo courtesy of Preston Lauterbach]

The Chitlin’ Circuit was a network of venues that welcomed African American performers in the 1940s and ‘50s, during the Jim Crow era. It supported blues, jazz, rock, and soul legends like Billie Holiday, B.B. King, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Ray Charles and James Brown. It was an industry run by black business people, with black performers performing for black audiences.

The name comes from Chitterlings, or in dialect, “chitlins,” a dish prepared from hog intestines. Over time, chitlins became an iconic part of African American cuisine because of their connection to the experiences of slaves.

Venues ranged from small juke joints in rural areas to nightclubs, restaurants, and higher-end theaters in larger cities. Entertainers aspired to perform at one of the premiere venues: Atlanta’s Royal Peacock, Baltimore’s Royal Theater, Chicago’s Regal Theater, Detroit’s Paradise Theatre, Harlem’s Apollo Theater, and Washington, D.C.’s Howard and Lincoln Theaters.

Venues were usually set up along “the stroll,” a strip of markets, BBQ restaurants and bars. Strolls were common in segregated cities; Jefferson Street in Nashville, Sweet Auburn in Atlanta, Rampart in New Orleans and Beale Street in Memphis.

“Sometimes you play for the chitlins, that’s what you would get,” explained “king of the Chitlin’ Circuit” Bobby Rush. “We played so well in Argo, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, the guy gave us two plates of chitlins and four hamburgers. We ate one chitlins, we sell the other for $.35 and we sell the hamburgers for $.25. I’d make a $1.25 or a $1.35 on my hamburgers every night.”

Photo: Marion Post Wolcott / Library of Congress

The showmanship displayed by performers on the circuit helped shape rock and roll. Bo Diddley’s syncopated Bo Diddley beat originated there. Jimi Hendrix earned a living as a sideman on the Circuit after his discharge from the army in 1962, working for stars like Sam Cooke, Ike and Tina Turner, Wilson Pickett and the Isley Brothers. Hendrix learned how to play solos with his teeth and play the guitar behind his back on the Chitlin’ Circuit.

Other artists who traveled the circuit did not achieve widespread fame, but built a name for themselves and found steady work for years. Tennessee blues singer O.V. Wright grew popular with his haunting, rough singing style he developed as a child in church. Louisiana Blues musician Roy Brown created a gospel-infused style of R&B that influenced Elvis Presley and James Brown. Arkansas bandleader Louis Jordan pioneered a loose, hard-driving style of blues called “jump music.”

The roots of the Chitlin Circuit can be traced to the vaudeville shows of the 1800s, and the venues where such performances took place. Vaudeville’s comedies, dance routines, minstrel shows, musical acts, and staged plays were run by whites and were primarily concerned with pleasing the masses.

In the late 1800s, B.F. Keith and E.F. Albee organized a standardized system of venues where talent was booked for specific appearances at vaudeville venues. African American performers often went without work in an industry controlled by white booking agents. Jim Crow segregation limited where they could perform and travel safely. In 1911, African American entrepreneur Sherman Dudley created his own theatrical touring company, purchased numerous entertainment venues, and unionized African American artists.

Denver and Sea Ferguson, two African American siblings from Indianapolis, formed the Ferguson Brothers Agency, whose national network of venues directly booked performers. This network became the original Chitlin Circuit.

The Fergusons helped various orchestras, bands, and vaudeville shows book gigs, such as Jay McShann, King Kolax, Tiny Bradshaw, Roosevelt Sykes, the Bama State Collegians, Carolina Cotton Pickers, Gene Pope, and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, and organised tours around the South playing to Black audiences. After the Fergusons’ agency closed in the late 1940s, other, smaller circuits emerged, showcasing Black entertainers in Black-owned venues.

The Chitlin Circuit faded as Black musicians realized there was more money to be made performing for white audiences. The barriers of segregation were breaking down, and their electrifying style of music was becoming a national phenomenon.

In 1955, Little Richard achieved breakout success with “Tutti Frutti,” a cleaned-up version of a profane song he often performed on the circuit. “I was the first black artist whose records the white kids were starting to buy,” Little Richard told Rolling Stone. “We played places where they told us not to come back, because the kids got so wild. They were tearing up the streets and throwing bottles and jumping off the theater balconies at shows. At that time, the white kids had to be up in the balcony – they were ‘white spectators.’ But then they’d leap over the balcony to get downstairs where the black kids were.”

The Rock and roll craze had begun.

ⓒ 2023, Evan Schlansky. Research compiled, expanded and edited from Wikipedia and other web sources.